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The Elder Gods
David and Leigh Eddings
HarperCollins hardcover £17.99

review by Tom Matic

Do you ever get the feeling with some books that the writer's been commissioned to knock out X amount of pages, and has had difficulty finding enough material to fill it? This is quite reprehensible when the page count is 200, but unforgivable when it's over 400 pages. In The Elder Gods, the padding doesn't even take the form of over-extended action sequences, but of acres of recap dialogue. Occasionally in the novel, there's a chapter where something happens. In the following chapter, not a lot happens, but in the meantime a witness to the previous chapter's moderately exciting event will tell another character all about it. And in the next chapter... the character then proceeds to narrate another such recap to another character. And so it plods along, each successive chapter more and more laden down with the backstory established by the previous one.
   I have to confess I'm not a great devotee of sword and sorcery epics at the best of times, but in The Elder Gods, there's precious little of the sword and the sorcery is predominantly of a cloying New Age variety, with pink dolphins to boot. I made the mistake of selecting the book by its title, which suggested some kind of Lovecraftian Cthulthu Mythos type pastiche. Oh, that's mumbo jumbo too, but Lovecraft's mumbo jumbo has a kind of conviction and intensity about it that makes it compelling reading. The same, alas, cannot be said of this.
   It's all building up to a climactic battle scene. (I'm not giving anything away here; it's indicated very heavy-handedly by the endless alliance building and narrated councils of war.) But you're practically on page 400 before any fighting takes place - and this criticism is coming from a reviewer who sat through the whole of The Two Towers, thinking 'not another battle scene!' The Elder Gods makes me 'nostalgic' for Peter Jackson's Tolkien epic with its constant sword thrusts, but it's not just the dearth of action that makes The Elder Gods so turgid. After all, some of the build up to war is quite engaging, like the hunt for bits of metal to melt down for arrowheads, and the quality of the prose isn't entirely mediocre.
   What makes The Elder Gods such a bland and tedious read is the want, in all the reams of 'epic story-telling', of any dramatic tension, of any sense that the heroes are under threat from their shadowy enemy, 'the servants of the Vlagh'. These 'snake men' are constantly derided by their opponents for their suicidal stupidity, making them seem like paper tigers rather than the viciously tenacious villains required for frequent rematches, in what is the first of a whole series of novels set in this fictional never-never land. It occurred to me that, with their self-destructive devotion to their Evil Master, they're supposed to represent Al Quaeda, but to attribute even such a neo-conservative allegory to this undoubtedly reactionary, but fundamentally vacuous, twaddle would be reading far too much into it. Perhaps it would help if there were some scenes from the perspective of the Vlagh itself. I realise that the authors are trying to give the impression of an unseen threat, in which case they might have been better off putting in a few surprise raids by the 'servants of the Vlagh'. Admittedly there are one or two, like the attempt to attack the Maag ship The Seagull, but this is hardly a surprise and the super-archer Longbow almost single-handedly repels it with ridiculous ease.
   As the dustsheet boasts, there is no shortage of characters in the novel, but didn't anyone ever tell the Eddingses that quality's as important as quantity? Basically, there are the Gods, bickering siblings who live on air and rule the mortals, who are divided into the Dhraal (a good, solid, salt-of-the-Earth neo-Saxon tribal society, with beards and hair braids to match, but who nevertheless talk like West Coast Americans); the Maags (worldly, semi-pirate seadogs who talk like pig-sticking Appalachian hillbillies); the Trogites (city-dwelling Empire builders). Then there are the Dreamers (human children adopted by the Gods, with the power to affect the world with their dreams). Oh, and of course there's the Vlagh and its servants, who don't really count, because they're just the cotton-picking baddies.
   And it could really do with a convincing villain with a speaking part to darken it up a bit. In The Elder Gods, even the most hard-bitten pirate has a heart of gold, and even the most fearsome warrior is a softy underneath it all. One of the most annoying characters is the nauseatingly cutesy and precocious little girl Eleria, a Dreamer adopted by the main Goddess Velana, who wraps the seemingly impassive Dhraal killing machine Longbow round her little finger by playfully falling asleep on his lap. However, she outdoes herself when she turns her attention to the diminutive Maag errand boy Rabbit, who asks her why she calls him 'Bunny':

It's a friendlier sort of name,' Eleria told him from her usual place on Longbow's lap, 'and I feel friendlier about you, since you're almost as teenie-weenie as I am. Longbow is one of the biggies, so he doesn't understand us teenie-weenies...

Towards the end of the novel, there's a hint that her babyish mannerisms might be a front for something more sinister, but it's too late, you've got past page 400 (and your boredom threshold) by then.
   Stylistically The Elder Gods is an odd mix, an uneasily stilted blending of quasi-Biblical expositional narrative (paragraphs that begin 'Now' or 'And') with incongruously lightweight dialogue. Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's just that I can't stand this sort of fantasy nonsense. In which case, to compensate for my own tastes, I'll be generous and give it the benefit of the doubt, by awarding it two stars instead of one.
Elder Gods

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